January 30, 2023

Activists, political scientists say protest still a powerful tool

Javier Gallegos/The Santa Fe New Mexican

Members of Communications Workers of America labor union and other posters gather outside the Roundhouse on Jan. 17 to show support for teleworking and workers’ rights.

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Some in the crowd were fighting back tears as Darlene Peshlakai spoke.

Peshlakai lost her two teen daughters, Deshauna and Del Lynn, in a vehicular crash in Santa Fe on March 5, 2010.

The driver of the truck who crashed into their car was drunk. Why, Peshlakai asked the assembly gathered for a MADD New Mexico event at the Roundhouse, was the man previously arrested on multiple drunk driving charges allowed to get behind the wheel of his truck and kill?

The Friday event, held in the Rotunda of the state Capitol, served as a demonstration of resolve for the roughly 100 people who came together to pressure the state to do more to curb drunk driving.

The timing was good, the locale perfect: The 60-day legislative session is playing out, and the Capitol building is flowing with the human energy of lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the public. The MADD event was typical of the nearly daily activist energy that envelopes the building during the annual legislative session.

There’s no better place to gather to send a message, said Katrina Latka, affiliate executive director of the MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) New Mexico branch. 

“To get in front of so many people at one time is tremendous [in conveying a message],” she said. “When folks get together to share their stories, those stories have power.”

There are many such gatherings at the state Capitol. Some are in response to hot-button, controversial topics like abortion and gun control. Some are cries for help or calls for action when it comes to tackling climate change, civil rights and public education reform. 

Regardless, political science experts and those in the trenches say the power of the protest can make a difference, whether they are held on college campuses, public squares, the streets leading to the U.S. Capitol or right here in Santa Fe. 

“It’s an important part of political participation; it has been for a long time,” said Neil Harvey, a professor of political science and head of the Department of Government at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Public demonstrations, he said, firmly put “issues in the public light and on the public agenda; they lead public officials to take note.”

Such large gatherings, which can give off the aura of a circus designed to grab attention, are “still an important way to try to bring about policy changes,” he said. 

Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, agrees. He said decades, even centuries, of public protests in the country have not dimmed their power to convey a message, even in this day of social media, online entertainment and fast-paced technological advances. 

“We think of them as an old-school tactic, but you are still seeing large numbers of folks come to the Roundhouse [to protest],” he said.

And lawmakers are very attuned to such events, whether they support the cause or not, he said. 

“Legislators, just like anybody else, see a lot of people gathering and say, ‘I want to be in front of this because a lot of them could be my constituents,’ ” Sanchez said. 

“Size matters,” Sanchez said — the bigger the crowd, the more attention it is seen as warranting. 

Recent civil and political events around the country, from police brutality and shootings to the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that had previously protected abortion rights in the country, have galvanized more people to take to the streets to support — or oppose — an array of civil, social and political issues. 

Pre-COVID, movements like Black Lives Matter and the National Women’s March energized thousands in demonstrations calling for change. The coronavirus pandemic may have dimmed that energy a bit, both Harvey and Sanchez said, but problems that never seem to go away — like mass shootings — can reenergize tenacious activists, they said. 

“Each day brings very tragic news of a shooting … over 30 in the first few weeks of this year in this country,” Harvey said. “We are going to see pressure over changing regulations over various types of guns in this country.”

With several gun control bills in play at the Santa Fe session, one can count on advocates on both sides of the issue showing up at the Capitol when those bills begin getting heard.

The same is likely to be true when a bill to codify abortion rights gets its first hearing.

Change can take time

Harvey and Sanchez said advocates who demonstrate without seeming to gain ground must realize it could take years, or even more, to achieve their goals. 

Nobody knows that better than Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children. For over a decade, he helped lead a charge to draw more money from one of the state’s permanent funds to support more early childhood education and care programs.

Year after year, he and other advocates spoke in front of lawmakers in an effort to persuade them to go for a constitutional amendment to let voters decide the issue. Rallies of dozens and hundreds of supporters outside the Roundhouse during past legislative sessions helped keep the pressure on, he said.

Such gatherings can do more than just keep the issue before the public and lawmakers’ eyes, Sánchez said. They can slowly draw in more advocates who learn about the issue and decide to commit their time and energy to the cause.

“Advocates have to be educated,” he said. “So when you bring them together, you have the opportunity to educate the masses.”

Though it may be easy to see the early childhood struggle as one that lasted years without success, each demonstration resulted in small victories, he said.

“Every time we would go up there they would give us something,” he said with a laugh. “It was not what we were asking for but …”

He rattled off a series of concessions he said his band of advocates won over the years, from extra funding for public education and early childhood education to the development of an early childhood education trust fund and the creation of a state Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

In November, voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment, giving the OK for an increase in annual withdrawals from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund — valued at more than $26 billion in November — to send about $150 million a year for early childhood education and $100 million for the state’s public schools.

“That’s because of this movement,” Sánchez said. “We put it on the radar all those years.”